Intel Plows Forward With Itanium

While it does not enjoy the profile, press or mass awareness of the Xeon, Intel’s Itanium chip is holding its own and continues to receive significant investment from the company.

In just a few weeks, Intel will ship its latest Itanium, codenamed Montvale, followed next year by a major revision, Tukwila.

The fact that Intel continues supporting Itanium may seem incongruous to industry outsiders. Dean McCarron, principle researcher with Mercury Research, estimates Intel sells around 200,000 Itanium processors per year. If it were a commercial processor, those numbers would be a disaster.

But in Itanium’s high-end market, they’re pretty good.

“They’re selling into this back office, high reliability, big iron kind of market,” McCarron said. “The system volumes there are measured in tens of thousands of units a year. So they have an appropriate presence.”

Earlier this month, Intel discussed its Itanium roadmap, which stretches out to 2011. In a sign of how Itanium remains far-reaching despite its niche status, the discussion took place in Singapore, at the Gelato Itanium Conference and Expo — a show specifically for Linux on the Itanium processor.

When it ships in coming weeks, the Montvale product won’t represent a big change for Itanium — more of a refresh, really. It will have a slightly faster entry speed, 1.6GHz instead of 1.4GHz, and a speedier 667MHz front-side bus , as compared to 533MHz. The product will be sold under the name Itanium 2 9100-series.

Cameron McNairy, principal engineer and Itanium processor architect, told the emphasis with this release is to further the “RAS” (Reliability, Availability, Serviceability) reputation for which Itanium is known.

The refresh also adds a new feature called Core Level Lockstep, which insures that if the same calculations are done on two cores, the results match.

Itanium’s next major revision, Tukwila, is due next year and will offer a much bigger jump in features. Unlike the lineup’s current dual-core, 90nm-process designs, Tukwila will be a four-core processor using a 65nm manufacturing process.

It will also feature greater multithreading performance and a new memory interface, called QuickPath, that also will be used in the Nehalem Xeon processor when it ships next year. McNairy said Intel expects Tukwila will offer double the performance of current Itaniums.

Tukwila also brings with it a legacy dating back a decade. The processor’s design team includes the same engineers who developed the DEC Alpha processor — the first 64-bit RISC processor to hit the market back in the mid-1990s.

Alpha may have been ahead of its time, but DEC was living on borrowed time. Compaq inherited Alpha when it bought DEC, but ultimately could do nothing with the processor, which it shelved shortly before it was bought by HP.

Despite its low profile, RISC-based processing continues to hold between 45 and 50 percent of the market and the revenues are still substantial, according to Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight64.

Brookwood said that Intel has succeeded while MIPS, Alpha and other RISC chips failed because it had the money to overcome the “chicken and egg problem for new architectures.” In other words, it could afford to fund ISV ports to the Itanium, thus building the software library.

As a result, Itanium has become a key processor for most of the mainframe makers worldwide save IBM, which has its Power processors. HP, Bull, Unisys, NEC, Fujitsu and Hitachi are all Itanium licensees.

“Itanium is now the architecture of choice for all these legacy mainframe systems,” Brookwood said. “That’s a secure niche. If it didn’t go away over the last 30 years, it probably won’t go away over the next 30.”

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